Ram West Capital seeks to redevelop the Little Friends property into Heritage Place, a 47-unit townhome community. 12 new buildings would be constructed consisting of 44 townhome units, while the Kroehler Mansion would be renovated and divided into three additional townhome units.
The Heritage Place development application includes two matters for approval:
- A Certificate of Appropriateness for the proposed exterior facade changes to the Kroehler Mansion and the proposed exterior facade of the townhome units (COA 20-2321)
- A conditional use for townhomes in the R2 zoning district, and zoning variances for lot area requirements, front yard setback requirements, and maximum number of stories (PZC 20-1-061)
ECHO supports the proposed exterior facade changes to the Kroehler Mansion. The scope of the renovation includes detailed plans to restore many of the elements of the original 1910 construction. This would be a considerable improvement over current conditions.
ECHO also supports the proposed exterior facade of the townhome units. The building plans borrow a number of design elements from the Kroehler Mansion and incorporate them into the facades, without trying to replicate the Mansion itself. This design has the potential to be complementary to the neighborhood.
We do not support the conditional use for townhomes in the R2 zoning district. We also do not support the variance requests for lot area, front yard setback, and height variance to exceed the maximum number of stories.
ECHO distributed a survey in the week prior to the August 27 HPC meeting to seek feedback from our residents regarding this development proposal and what they value most about living in or near the Historic District. The majority of our neighborhood does not support this development as proposed.
Residents support the inclusion of a park and green space. The park provided within this development would be significantly larger than the former College Park, which was removed from the northwest corner of Columbia and School Streets in January 2020. The residents also support the rear-loading garages of the townhome units, which are in keeping with the character of our neighborhood.
It has been noted repeatedly that flooding has occurred at the corner of Wright and School Streets for years, exacerbated by the relatively recent addition of more impervious surface in the northwest portion of the Little Friends property. This townhome development would tie into the City stormwater system utilizing an underground vault. It has the potential to do more to mitigate existing stormwater issues in the area than a collection of 20 new single-family homes would. In addition, the intensity of use will clearly be much lower than existing conditions.
That said, a majority of residents do not support the proposed density and setbacks of this development. The requested 15-foot front yard setback, with a permitted encroachment for a five-foot porch, is not in keeping with the character of the great majority of the Historic District.
Minimum lot area is effectively the density requirement for the R2 zoning district. The plan submission notes that the proposed development consists of 12 units per acre. City planning documents generally consider low-density residential to be less than 2.5 units per acre, and high-density residential to be more than eight units per acre. As noted in the City staff report, decreasing the number of townhome units to 41 would eliminate the need for this variance request.
In making the case for the zoning variances, the petitioner repeatedly cites the current intense use of the property in comparison to the proposed use as the primary factor why the standards for a zoning variance are met. While the proposed use of the property would undoubtedly be less intense than the current Little Friends use in terms of traffic and number of persons typically onsite, it does not necessarily follow that the proposed redevelopment will not be a substantial detriment to adjacent property. A 39-foot building set 15 feet away from the property line is a substantial change from the current site conditions, and is intense in its own right.
The fact that adjacent properties are across the street does not necessarily mitigate the reduction in front yard setbacks. This is particularly notable given the narrow right-of-way on the School Street frontage, reducing the parkway width considerably. The coach house building at the northern edge of the property is one story on the side closest to the street, and sits seven feet back from the property line. An additional five feet of sidewalk and six feet of parkway make the distance to School Street approximately 18 feet. On the Franklin Street side, the distance between the street and the existing Krejci Academy structure is considerably larger. Krejci Academy is 42 feet tall and sits approximately 25-1/2’ feet from the property line. Add a five-foot sidewalk and a 15-foot parkway, and the distance from the building to the street is a little over 40 feet.
We also invite residents and the Commission to review the existing Krejci Academy facade on Franklin Street, and to consider whether its height of 42 feet would be acceptable if it were 10 feet closer to the street, as this development proposes something very similar.
Front yard setbacks vary throughout the Historic District. However, the vast majority of the homes throughout the District are in compliance with the 25-foot front yard setback and the 15-foot corner side yard setback. There are very few examples of reduced setbacks in the blocks surrounding the Little Friends property. Homes with front-yard setbacks less than 25 feet are much more common on the blocks to the west of North Central College, including those along Center and Ellsworth Streets.
Lastly, the petitioner makes their argument for the height variance based on other developments which have come to market with rooftop decks. The zoning code defines practical difficulties or hardships as those not generally found on other properties within the zoning district. Zoning variances are typically granted when there is a hardship related to existing conditions on the lot. To put it simply, competitive disadvantage is not a zoning-related hardship.
If this development proposal is not economically viable with setbacks increased, ECHO submits that the demolition of Kroehler Mansion may be a better long-term solution for preserving the character of the neighborhood while permitting respectful new construction.
We appreciate the communication from the attorney for the petitioner and the development team, and we thank the Historic Preservation Commission for its time and service to the community.